Feedback about our behavior is all around us. We step on the scale and we get feedback about how much we weigh and, indirectly, about behaviors that cause our weight to go up or down. We don’t always like the feedback we get but we don’t argue with it. Even if the scale is off by a couple of pounds, we accept what it tells us.
With people, we’re far less accepting. We treat feedback we don’t like as criticism. True, much of the feedback we receive is unskillfully delivered. But even when feedback is offered with our best interests at heart, we tend to deflect it. In so doing we also dismiss observations about our behavior that can actually help us be more effective in critical areas of our work and lives.
I was recently reminiscing with my brother (a child psychologist by training) about a recent family reunion. It was an innocent conversation until the moment he told me what he thought about how I treated my teenage daughter in a conversation he overheard. Wham. I never saw it coming and I wasn’t happy to hear what he had to say. He moved on, but I couldn’t. In the moment I was emotionally stuck and couldn’t get past my reactions to what he had said.
Once I calmed down I realized there are two ways I generally respond to feedback I don’t like, including my brother’s:
- I blow it off. There are a couple of different ways to do this. One is to discount the message. In the above example, that might sound like Yeah, whatever. You see me interacting with my kids maybe two or three times a year, what do you know? The other is to discount the source: You may be a child psychologist, but you’re not a perfect parent either. In fact I’ve got a few thoughts to share with you…
- I argue. What were you doing eves-dropping on our conversation? How about you use your great advice with your own kids? When I need parenting help I’ll ask for it. I’m doing just fine without you. Etcetera.
When I calmed down, I realized there was a third option. I could be curious. I didn’t like how my brother delivered his feedback and it may have been off by a pound or two, but his insight wasn’t wrong. It actually resonated with my experience: while I never would have admitted it in that conversation, I didn’t like the way I spoke to my daughter either.
When it comes to our behavior we’re all wearing the emperor’s new clothes. Others see things about us that we can’t see for ourselves. If we choose to be curious, feedback—even poorly delivered feedback—can be a gift that helps us learn how to be more effective, more of who we want to be.
So the next time you find yourself reacting to unwanted or unappreciated feedback, come back to it after your emotions have settled. Ask yourself if there’s any truth in it. Learn from that piece of it, take ownership of that piece of it, and put it to work…